Thursday, June 17, 2010

Is math education important?


You know my answer. Yes.

Or Hellz Yeah, as we say in Oakland.

News stories often complain about how badly our students are doing in math. Screw that. Give math tests to news reporters. Let's see if they can find their asses with both hands.

The story of how much oil is leaking per day has "evolved" from 200 barrels a day when the oil rig crashed into the sea, about as much oil as is in a tanker truck you might see on the freeway, to over 60,000 barrels, three hundred times more than the first estimate. You can see on this chart that the next day, they multiplied the original estimate by five and four days later, another fivefold increase.

The math of the situation isn't that hard. How big is the hole and how high is the pressure? Under the first estimate, this would be about 12.4 ounces (368 mL) leaking every second. That's a tiny trickle. My kitchen sink faucet takes less than two seconds to fill a twelve ounce glass, my bathtub faucet can easily fill it in one second. Even at the beginning, they had to assume the hole was bigger and the pressure much higher.

It took me a few minutes to find the necessary numbers online and to do the experiments of filling the glass from my various household spigots.

The problem is that no reporter thought to do this experiment and no editor forced the writers to do a better job.

It's common to complain about the job the schools are doing, but lifelong learning is the job of every citizen of a democracy. We have a society where it is a horrible sin to be fat, but completely acceptable to be mentally flabby, and this mental flabbiness lets people like the BP spokesmen tell ridiculous and easily refuted lies unchallenged.

Let me end on a positive note. I nicked the chart from Talking Points Memo, and they did a good job creating it. The small black circle in the middle of the target has about 1/300 the area of the largest diameter circle, so if you compare areas of the different size circles, you get an idea of the differences in scale.

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